Civil service takes beating

PPM supporters want cuts

With the Cayman Islands still firmly in the grip of a budget crisis, supporters of the previous government demanded to know why their elected officials didn’t do more to reduce the size of the public sector.

Mr. Tibbetts / Mr. McLaughlin

Mr. Tibbetts / Mr. McLaughlin

‘Somebody has to bite the bullet,’ said Roger Davies, one of the more than 100 people who attended the People’s Progressive Movement’s national council meeting Monday night at the Seafarer’s Hall in Prospect.

Reviews done previously by the Caymanian Compass have shown government’s overall spending on workers’ salaries and benefits has increased by some 50 per cent in the last five years. Even in 2008, when the overall number of civil service employees was reduced, data from the Treasury Department shows that spending to cover salaries and benefits for those workers went up nearly 15 per cent.

‘Now is the time to deal with it,’ said PPM party member Brian Pairaudeau.

The questioning on the topic grew so intense that at one point, former Leader of Government Business and now-Opposition Leader Kurt Tibbetts jokingly asked the audience if they could ask the PPM’s elected leadership about something else for a while.

‘When people make statements about trimming the civil service, that is almost an impossible task,’ Mr. Tibbetts said.

Someone from the back of the audience yelled out ‘it shouldn’t be’ immediately after Mr. Tibbetts’ statement.

Former Education Minister and George Town MLA Alden McLaughlin – not generally one to sympathise with the ruling United Democratic Party – told the audience he understood the current government’s problem in reducing expenditure.

‘The governor and the chief secretary guard the civil service jealously,’ Mr. McLaughlin said, admitting that even he had difficulty and disagreements with his former chief officer in the Education Ministry.

‘I was told if you want your policies affected, you will go with our plan,’ he said.

Under Cayman’s current constitutional arrangement, the governor and chief secretary have ultimate responsibility for the civil service. However, elected lawmakers control the purse strings and can reduce the overall government budget.

The new constitution, which takes effect Friday, gives elected leaders more say in the management of government affairs. But ultimate responsibility for the civil service still lies with the governor.

Mr. Tibbetts admitted targeting civil servant salaries, as the largest single voting block in the Cayman Islands, can be a recipe for disaster to any elected government.

He noted that the UDP government, while it reduced overall expenditure in the current year’s budget by some $5 million, did so by cutting out items like CI$12 million earmarked for past service pension payments to retired government workers.

‘If they hadn’t done that, they would actually be spending more,’ Mr. Tibbetts said.

The previous government’s members have claimed that a six per cent across-the-board reduction in the civil service proposed last October simply didn’t work because it was gobbled up by spending increases in other areas.

Financial Secretary Ken Jefferson said essentially the same about the current 2009/10 budget. Mr. Jefferson said that some may not realise it, but serious cuts were made in the current budget plan.

For instance, projected overtime costs were reduced by some $4.3 million in the current budget; travel reduced by $665,000; wages cut by about $2.8 million largely due to attrition within the civil service; and telephone charges cut by $2.8 million.

However, government healthcare costs went up $3.8 million this year; professional fees were boosted by $2.1 million mostly because extra accountants were hired from the KPMG firm to update government’s backlog of annual reports; and insurance costs on government buildings went up $2.4 million.

In addition, government is expected to cover $6.7 million in operating costs from public authorities such as Cayman Airways and Boatswain’s Beach.

PPM party members did not end up supporting government’s budget, and instead chose to abstain – to vote neither ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when the spending plan was approved in Legislative Assembly last month.

‘Because there were so many important parts of the budget, which needed to carry…we couldn’t vote against the budget,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘But because we have some very, very serious doubts as to whether all the projections will be realised…we couldn’t vote ‘yes’ for the budget.’